Trump Turns Up the Heat on Moscow as Tillerson Talks Begin

Was Russia ‘incompetent’ or is it implicated in Assad’s use of poison gas? In a series of briefings, the administration is building a case for complicity.

The Trump administration is driving home its case alleging possible Russian complicity in Syria’s poison gas attack last week—and directly accusing Moscow of spreading disinformation to cover it up ahead of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s meetings with the Russian foreign minister and other officials this week.

“Russia’s allegations fit a pattern of deflecting blame from the regime and attempting to undermine the credibility of its opponents,” one of three high-level White House officials said in a briefing to reporters Tuesday. “Russia and Syria, in multiple instances in 2016, have blamed the opposition for chemical use in attacks.”

The officials laid out in detail why they blame the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad for an alleged sarin nerve agent attack that killed between 50 and 100 people on April 4 in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. The officials shared newly declassified U.S. intelligence from satellites and intercepts that they say showed a Syrian regime SU-22 fixed-wing aircraft dropped at least one sarin-laden weapon onto Khan Shaykun "approximately 20 minutes before reports of the chemical attack began," according to an additional statement following a briefing by the White House.

Turkish officials have said that autopsies of some victims have confirmed the nerve agent used was sarin, a weapon of mass destruction that is not known to be in the hands of any organization in Syria except the government, which had pledged in 2013 to destroy all of its stockpiles. The Russians had offered themselves as guarantors of that pledge.

The officials spoke to reporters on condition they not be named in what appears to be a full-court press, with the White House briefing followed later by diplomatic and military briefings, speaking to the hardening attitude of the Trump White House toward Moscow.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said U.S intelligence still wasn’t certain the Russia knew ahead of time that sarin was about to be used. But the officials said it was highly questionable that Russian military advisors co-located with Syrian forces at the Shayrat Airfield, the point of origin for the deadly strike, were unaware of the payload.

The Kremlin has sought to obfuscate the perpetrators of last week's gas attack, but Spicer roundly dismissed the contention, which was floated even by some prominent Assad-friendly conspiracy theorists in the United States, that anyone but the Syrian regime was behind it.

"I think that anybody who doubts that ... wouldn’t just be doubting the intelligence, but would be doubting the entire international reporting crew that was there to document all of this," he told reporters. "There have been doctors, intelligence communities, media ... It’s not a question of doubting [the U.S. government position], it’s a question of doubting everyone but Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Russia."

"The Syrian regime is responsible for the decision to attack and the attack itself," Defense Secretary James Mattis said of the suspected sarin attack on Tuesday, adding his voice to the multiple senior officials speaking out.

Ahead of last week’s U.S. strike against the Syrian airbase with 59 Tomahawk Cruise missiles, some U.S officials had argued that Moscow must be left with a face-saving way out of the controversy. But Russia responded to the strike with multiple attempts to deflect blame from its Syrian regime ally, leaving little room for either Washington or Moscow to maneuver a diplomatic way out.

“At what point do they recognize they are getting on the wrong side of history?” Spicer said, berating Russia for aligning with what he called the “failed states” of Syria, North Korea, and Iran. Tillerson would be "going to let Russia know they have to live up to their obligations,” vis a vis chemical weapons treaties, Spicer said.

Unlike the White House, Mattis refused to make any rhetorical denunciations of Russia, even making certain to point out that last week's Tomahawk strike was carefully aimed away from Russian military personnel.

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"It was very clear that the Assad regime planned it, orchestrated it and executed it. Beyond that, we can't say anything right now," he said. Neither he nor Central Command's Gen. Joseph Votel would confirm that it was a Russian military drone circling the Syrian hospital treating gas attack victims before the regime bombed it at the Tuesday Pentagon briefing.

The Russian military cut military deconfliction channel with the U.S.-led coalition in Syria, leading to the potential for a deadly accidental clash between the two nuclear powers.

“It will not spiral out of control,” Mattis insisted. “We maintain communications with the Russian military and with the diplomatic channels,” he said, adding that he’s confident Russians will “act in their own best interests,” which means keeping a lid on the tension.

Officials said they believe Khan Sheikhun was hit by sarin on April 4, in particular, to protect the regime’s military infrastructure including a nearby airfield.

“We think the regime has consistently used chemical weapons over time, not necessarily all sarin, to be able to fill up conventional voids” in its skirmishes against the opposition, one of the White House officials said.

Attacks using chlorine, a commonly available industrial chemical, were largely ignored by the Obama administration and, until this month, by the Trump administration as well. Only days before the Khan Sheikhoun attack, Tillerson himself had suggested the fate of Assad was a matter for the Syrian people, the line commonly used by Russia to defend the Syrian president as he massacres his people.

Mattis tiptoed confusingly when asked if Assad's chlorine-filled chemical weapons were as bad as sarin ones.

"As far as barrel bombs with chlorine, chemical weapons are chemical weapons," he said. "President Trump has made it exceedingly clear where the United States stands on that."

But he wouldn’t say if using them would trigger the same muscular U.S military response. When reporters told him that seemed contradictory and confusing, he said, “I really don’t want to clear it up,” perhaps to leave Assad wondering.

A senior defense official later explained, speaking anonymously in order to discuss Mattis’ thinking. “We want to leave it vague and keep Assad guessing.”

The senior national security officials said there were up to 200 incidents of suspected chemical weapons use by the Assad regime since it supposedly gave up its WMD stockpiles in 2013, as part of a deal brokered by Moscow to avoid punitive military strikes by the Obama administration.

As for the U.S. war on ISIS, Mattis also denied that the strike might signal mission creep toward regime change, insisting the coalition remains focused on the so-called Islamic State.

"We knew we could not stand passive on this, but it was not a statement that we could step full bore," into what the retired Marine general described as the most complex conflict on the planet. "It was not a harbinger of some change in our military campaign."

—Lachlan Markay also contributed to this article